Fat, Hungry, and Out of Control: Fixing Food Systems for Humanity’s Urban Future

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gaz_feedingFrom China’s melamine-tainted-milk scandal to Cargill’s 2011 recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey, a food-policy wonk needn’t look far these days to find disaster or the threat of one. So it was no surprise that the Penn Institute for Urban Research’s pathbreaking “Feeding Cities” conference, held in Houston Hall in March, raised red flags by the dozen. But it wasn’t until near the end of the second day that someone came up with a zinger equal to the task of showing how truly bizarre the global food system has become.

During a panel discussion on peri-urban farmland preservation, Kevin Morgan, a professor of governance and development at Cardiff University in the UK, allowed himself a brief digression on the horsemeat scandal that shook Europe this past winter.

“By the way,” he quipped, “we think it’s the most extraordinary example in human history where food adulteration actually improved the nutritional quality of the food.”

We farm and feed in strange times. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), some 870 million people are chronically undernourished. At the same time, the World Health Organization estimates that 1.4 billion adults are overweight or obese—categories that also account for 40 million children below the age of five, and impose steep costs in both money and mortality.

And those are just today’s challenges. The UN estimated that there were about 500 million middle-class consumers in the world in 2000, noted Carl Hausmann, a policy advisor at the global agribusiness giant Bunge Limited, in a conference breakout session. By 2050, that number is projected to be close to 3.5 billion. “These are people who have been under-consuming in the past,” Hausmann observed, “who are looking to improve their diet.”

Insofar as improvement means increased consumption of resource-intensive foods like meat, which has been the typical pattern among people rising out of poverty, it will depend on a vast expansion of agricultural output.

Just how vast is hard to gauge. “We know that we waste about one-third of the calories we produce globally,” said keynote speaker Heather Grady, a vice president of foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation. “In rich countries, we throw away as much food, per capita, as people in many parts of the world have to eat … In the developing world, up to 40 percent of food can be lost before it is consumed, due to inadequacies of storage, transport, and processing.” So curtailing waste should go part of the way toward meeting the next generation’s nutritional needs.

Still, a growing population featuring a geometric increase of middle-class consumers represents a global food bill that can be difficult to envision. One common factoid that indicates the scale of the challenge was voiced last year by Josette Sheeran, vice chair of the World Economic Forum and former executive director of the World Food Programme: “Over the next 40 years, we need to produce more food than the last 8,000 years combined.”

What does this have to do with cities, one might wonder?

For starters, cities are growing in just about every measurable way: towns are morphing into small cities, small cities are becoming big ones, and mega-cities continue to sprawl at a steady clip as young people forsake the rural life for the urban one. And increasingly, urbanization is coming at the direct expense of agriculture, as housing subdivisions replace erstwhile dairy farms everywhere from the Washington capital corridor to the hinterlands of Shanghai.

“The lands on which many cities have been built,” Grady said, “is particularly fertile. And there’s continual encroachment due to industry, infrastructure, and housing. While this may make sense from a purely economic view—because of course from a purely financial analysis you wouldn’t want to use high-value city land to grow agricultural products—the loss of farmland in and around cities has already had an impact on food access, price, and quality.”

That may represent good news for urban people with rising incomes (in the global context, those moving from subsistence levels to earning between $2 and $10 per day), and for the farmers who grow their food. But the “attendant price rise in food caused by this increase in demand will be felt negatively by those whose income remains at less than $2 a day,” Grady noted. She added that seminal research by the Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen documented that even “slight drops in food availability had an enormous impact” during the Bengal famine of 1943, when the overall food supply was adequate but rising prices and poor distribution systems (among other things) led to the deaths of some three million people.

And on the other end of the spectrum, the transition from rural poverty to urban affluence exacts its own cost. “In Mexico,” remarked University of Delhi public-policy professor Raghav Gaiha, “obesity was almost unknown in 1980. Now about 30 percent of the population is obese. India is also experiencing an obesity epidemic in the cities, as people switch to more-processed food and lead more sedentary lifestyles.”

From the disastrous statist collectivization of Soviet agriculture in the early 20th century to the market-driven food-price shocks of the early 21st—which helped to destabilize governments in Asia, Africa, and, momentously, the Middle East— modern history abounds with examples of the steep toll of getting food systems wrong. Yet in truth, the world now also abounds with scholars, businesspeople, and philanthropic organizations trying to get them right. The problem, according to Penn IUR co-director Eugenie Birch, the Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research, is that they have confined themselves within discipline-specific silos.

“The agronomists talk to the agronomists,” Birch explained after the conference. “The nutrition people talk to the nutritionists. The city planners talk to the city planners. But they’re not talking across fields as much has one would think.”

The conference’s success at fostering interactions between all these communities was probably best gauged by Catherine Brinkley, a Penn grad student who in Birch’s opinion may be “the only person in the world who is getting a doctorate of veterinary medicine and a PhD in city planning at the same time.”

“The goal was to have an international expert and a local Philadelphia person on every single panel—so it had something immediately applicable and close to home for Philadelphians who came, but also the big-picture international stuff,” Brinkley said afterward. “And differences of opinion on each panel as well. Which is wonderful, because a lot of times conferences will have a certain message they want to get across.”

In other words, thematic disunity was a feature, not a bug—which made “Feeding Cities” a bear to summarize, but a boon for participants seeking to broaden their knowledge base.

Speakers who trotted out well-worn statistics about the fossil-fuel requirements of beef production (Washington Post columnist Neal Pearce posited that “cattle nation” would be the third-highest greenhouse-gas emitter) encountered veterinary scientists who challenged the assumptions behind both that math and the more general critique of animal consumption.

“I’ve heard a lot of demonizing about the increasing consumption of animal products and how that’s going to kill the world,” remarked Roberto Sainz, a UC-Davis animal-science professor currently leading the Brazil-US Consortium in Sustainable Ruminant Livestock Production Systems. “In fact, in 70 percent of the world, more than two-thirds of the people … derive their livelihoods from raising livestock,” he said, adding that many do so with much less dependency on the fossil-fuel inputs that characterize grain-fattened feedlot cattle in the United States. “Brazil is the number-one beef exporter in the world,” he pointed out, “and 95 percent of those [cattle] never see a speck of grain.”

A presentation on GPS-guided, computer-intensive “precision agriculture” sparked a lively debate about whether capital-intensive technological solutions represented an opportunity or a threat to the small- and mid-sized farms that play critical roles in feeding cities in industrialized and developing nations alike.

Another panel trumpeted the importance of strengthening urban food networks—and turned a critical eye on whether policymakers should really “expect urban agriculture to achieve a lot of the traditional development payoffs people are starting to ask of it,” as Penn assistant professor of city and regional planning Domenic Vitiello GFA’98 Gr’04 put it. “It’s not creating a lot of private-sector fulltime jobs that are not subsidized. It’s not creating tremendous profits—ask any urban farmer,” Vitiello added. “It’s not creating a lot of tax ratables. But that said, urban farming, and to a great extent gardening, are creating economic development outcomes that are really important—and really hard to do,” such as generating supplemental income for poor city-dwellers, and aiding workforce integration for ex-prisoners, at-risk youth, and refugees.

At its best, the conference served to forge missing links between bodies of knowledge whose richness Birch found “humbling.”

One breakout session, for instance, featured an alarming preview of a problem that receives a lot less attention than it would seem to merit: “peak phosphorus.” David Vaccari, a director of the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Ocean Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, outlined modern agriculture’s dependence on phosphorus—a non-renewal resource mined from a small number of sources that may be exhausted by century’s end. Next up was Peter van der Steen, a lecturer in wastewater treatment at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands, who detailed a chemical reaction called struvite precipitation (in which magnesium is added to urine to extract its phosphorus content) and reviewed pilot programs of its implementation in the Netherlands and Nepal. Coupling this recycling method with waterless toilets, and municipal sewage systems designed to reduce the dilution of urine, could help to turn wastewater into a valuable and sustainable source of agricultural nutrients.

That panel should have been helpful to Marina Khoury, a partner and director of town planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, a firm best known for pioneering New Urbanism with the master-planned community Seaside, Florida. She presented designs for a “self-sustaining, food-centered community” in Canada, provisionally called Southlands, in which “food production forms the basis for urban density,” as the firm’s website puts it.

And participants in that session, in turn, could certainly have benefited from the presentation of Udaya Prabath Gammanpila, the Minister of Agriculture, Minor Irrigation, Industries & Environment for Sri Lanka’s densely populated Western Province. He detailed the 13-year effort, initiated by his predecessor in office, to reduce his province’s dependence on other regions for food, which had led to elevated prices, high levels of food spoilage in transit, and deterioration of nutritional value in the imported food. In refreshing contrast to the agrarian fantasies that often seem to color the imaginations of urban-agriculture enthusiasts, Gammanpila laid out challenges running the gamut from lack of soil to “lack of interest” among Sri Lankans who’d already voted against the agricultural life with their feet, so to speak. Yet a multi-pronged strategy involving everything from the cultivation of gardens within traffic roundabouts, to the promotion of organic gardening, to the use of prison labor has reduced the Western Province’s intra-national importation of food items by 30 percent while involving some 75 percent of its citizens in urban and peri-urban agriculture, Gammanpila said.

At the conference’s conclusion, participants assembled to brainstorm an “action agenda” for the increasingly busy intersection of food issues and urban planning. (Videos from all the presentations are archived in the news section of Penn IUR’s website: tinyurl.com/ctsa8vy.)

“Most conferences just sort of fizzle out at the end,” Brinkley remarks. But hopefully the Feeding Cities action agenda will “chart a path for academia, policy-makers, and people on the ground to learn from interventions that have been proven to work.”

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